Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Secret Allies: Reconsidering Science and Gender in Cat's Eye

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Secret Allies: Reconsidering Science and Gender in Cat's Eye

Article excerpt

WHEN MARGARET ATWOOD PUBLISHED CAT'S EYE, readers intuited that Atwood was portraying a delicate negotiation between science and art. "The scientific imagination balances the mythic imagination" wrote Eleanor Cook in a review, "as in the two epigraphs, one from Hawking and one from a mythical Genesis" But when critical interpretations of science in the novel began to appear, that readerly intuition was challenged as some critics concluded that science was a negative force in the novel--an extension of an empiricist and racist patriarchy. Molly Hire, for example, calls the physicist character Stephen "a representative of the white, Western, male oppressor class" who suffers simultaneously from an "unawareness of the disciplinary system and of his own visibility within that system" (133, 147). June Deery writes, 'Atwood concludes that what links science, imperialism, and patriarchy is control of the body.... Western scientists ... have traditionally been depicted as subduing nature as female.... They share some of the same attitude as colonists: conquer, map, know, and sell" (235). Susan Strehle suggests that the patriarchy is active in Cat's Eye in the strictest sense, attributing all forms of Elaine's suffering to "the fathers" in the novel who enact "hierarchies of value that place women at the bottom and girls below them." She identifies the "paternal authorities" as "home, church, school, and state" (170). She associates science with these paternal authorities, constructing "classical science" as the "scientific method of detached objectivity that denies women subjectivity" (162).

As a feminist and a teacher of this text in women's literature and science and literature courses for over ten years, I have both felt myself, and noted in other readers, an emotional disconnect between readings that view science as oppressive and the portrayal of science and scientists in the novel. The three scientist characters in Cat's Eye--Stephen, Elaine's father Dr Risley, and his student-colleague Dr Banerji--all appear to be "classical scientists" who subscribe to the principles of empiricism, objectivity, and the scientific method. Yet they are not negative characters. In fact, these three scientists are muses for the artist-protagonist Elaine (Dr Banerji is called so explicitly), and science itself is a source of inspiration, for her as for them. The scientists are aesthetically driven in their work, and the scientific objects and ideas in the text (insects, stars, light, mirrors, and dimensions) become aesthetic objects in Elaine's paintings.

Critics who read science and scientists as patriarchal and racist reference cultural critics like Michel Foucault, Sandra Harding, and Donna Haraway, who demonstrate how sexist and racist beliefs can be embedded in the scientific intellectual and methodological traditions, reinforcing Eurocentric and patriarchal agendas. These theories are immensely complex constructions of the interplay between science and culture, but they are vulnerable to oversimplification. When such ideas are reduced to interpretations that leave the reader thinking that (in the words of Deery's editor, Harold Bloom) "scientific notions ... are masks for a supposedly male ideology" (vii), the subtlety of the critiques from social constructionists is lost. Leaving aside the question of what is a "male ideology;' these interpretations make the mistake of failing to distinguish between "professional science" and "cultural science" as defined by literary critic Daniel Cordle. (1) He defines professional science as "the set of practices and expertise that mal(e up the life of the working scientist" and cultural science as "the relationship between science and the public" (51). Atwood herself has repeatedly denied attributing social oppression to science qua science. She is careful to distinguish between science and what society does with or to science: "Science is a way of knowing, and a tool. Like all ways of knowing and tools, it can be turned to bad uses . …

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